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CUSD fires employee for passing on confidential info to union rep
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The Ceres School Board has unanimously upheld the Ceres Unified School District's recommendation to terminate Lorraine Nilson as an accountant I in the Business Services Division for passing along confidential information on employees.

The decision came after a special Aug. 26 hearing held in public at Nilson's request.

Both sides presented their cases and multiple witnesses were questioned.

"The next step will be to file a civil suit," said Nilson, who's been employed by CUSD for 18 years. "Until I get the advice of my lawyer, I should not say anything else."

Ceres School Board President Eric Ingwerson commented that CUSD's attorney, Roman Munoz, "put together a compelling case to show wrongdoing."

Added Munoz: She (Nilson) was trying to get information for her union. Her conduct broke the trust of the public and her co-workers."

According to CUSD Director of Personnel Services Steve Fabela, Nilson accessed CUSD's QSS finance system through the Stanislaus County Office of Education during the 2009-10 school year and printed account activity reports on her workplace computer and cut her name from the bottom of the reports before distributing copies of the confidential information to another district employee, Richard Layne, who is 2009-10 CSEA chapter 140 president. The documents included salary and benefits information for CUSD Superintendent Walt Hanline, Deputy Supt. Scott Siegel and Assistant Superintendent of Personnel Services Denise Wickham. Nilson also handed over an attorney's fee bill for Kronick, Moskovitz, Tiedemann & Girard.

"The district's code of ethics expects district employees to maintain the highest ethical standards, exhibit professional behavior, follow district policies and regulations, and abide by state and federal laws," said Fabela in a May letter to Nilson which also contained recommendation of disciplinary action. "Your actions of accessing, printing, copying and then disseminating confidential information to another employee for the purposes of providing this information to the CSEA president violated the district's code of ethics. You made no attempt to inquiry with the head accountant or your supervisor whether or not it was permissible for you to do so. In addition, your assertion that you believed the documents to be public information and not confidential is not consistent with your actions of cutting off your name at the bottom of the Account Activity Reports indicating your awareness of your inappropriate actions. In addition, you have processed KMTG invoices for approximately 14 years and each invoice has the statement 'Privileged And Confidential Attorney-Client Communication.' Your explanation that you did not know or believe this was a confidential document is not credible."

Siegel said that "stealing protected information is not acceptable. There's a proper way to report that (possible improprieties). We respond to public information requests all the time."

Siegel stated that his report listed detailed salary, benefit and attendance information.

"My attendance and use of sick leave is not public information," he said.

Paul Barragan and Janet Sterling, CSEA labor representatives, argued that the charges should be dismissed and Nilson be reinstated to her position immediately because she did nothing wrong except act as a whistle blower. Nilson believed she disclosed improper governmental activity.

Lane passed out the packet of documents to the School Board on March 4.

"The district's non-confidential budget information appeared to show that the superintendent's compensation had increased by approximately $50,000 in the past three years, including an increase in 2009-10," Sterling stated in a written response to the district's charges. "Within the past year, the employment contracts of some assistant superintendents and directors were changed from a set amount to a percentage of the Superintendent's pay, and they also received pay increases.

"On the face of it, the fact that the superintendent's compensation had increased by a large amount appeared to contradict the administrators' statements to the board that the superintendent and the administrators were taking reductions. This contradiction raised a question in Nilson's mind as to whether any officials concealed their increases from the board, or had misrepresented their compensation to the board. She believed that the board should be informed of the discrepancy so that it could investigate. She gave the information to the CSEA chapter president, and he informed the board.

"All of the information that Nilson accessed was information that she had permission to access as part of her job. She is not a confidential employee. She is a bargaining unit employee.

"Nilson accessed the information while on a work break. She often works without taking breaks at all, and generally does not take a regular break at an assigned time."

The times of the day that Nilson generated the reports verify that she misrepresented her explanation that she printed the information during her break times according to Fabela.

Robin Clayton, CUSD director of fiscal services, testified that Nilson's duties as an accountant I don't include using the district's QSS finance system.

"She pays bills," said Clayton, who was on vacation the two days Nilson accessed and printed the confidential information.

Nilson's job performance was also brought to light. She had an overall rating of requires improvement two out of the past three years. She also received a total of 58 check marks for "meets standards."

Fabela stated that Nilson's actions and work performance have continued to demonstrate her unwillingness to accept direction to stop interrupting the work of others, and to follow the instructions given to her by her Supervisor.

"I was trying to find out if they (CUSD administrators) had received a raise," Nilson stated. "I was trying to get this information for my union and for all the employees who were not a part of this; it is my understanding that the top 10 people in the district all got raises. This rumor kept coming up and so on my afternoon break one day I spent a few minutes punching in some codes, and this is what I came up with. This shows they did in fact get a raise."

Teresa Abad Levenfeld of Laplante, Spinelli, Donald & Nott conducted an independent investigation. She fielded questions from Munoz and Barragan at the special hearing.

"The annual salary adjustments for the superintendent, deputy superintendent and assistant superintendents are established by contract, therefore, the assertion that the administration gave themselves a raise is unfounded," she stated.